Leo Tolstoy described doctors engaging in what were ordinary practices in his day and sometimes I find it hard to tell if he is making fun of them, questioning their sincerity (were they knowingly selling snake-oil?), merely describing accepted practices from the day, all of the above? I am neither a Tolstoy scholar nor a historian of medicine but this got me thinking about how the human body has not fundamentally changed in a long while and yet medicine has changed dramatically over the centuries. Of course some “practitioners” throughout the ages (and still today) were con artists knowingly hoodwinking their victims, but many were serious & compassionate people trying to help others, people who recognized suffering and wanted to alleviate it. Slowly, ever so slowly, this has evolved into more and more effective forms of medicine. Discovery by discovery, painful experiment after painful experiment, medicine moves forward in its pursuit of alleviating suffering.

I was among the first in line for my covid vaccine and I lean liberal when it comes to theological disputes, I have no idea how closely aligned those two truths are but the media seems to suggest they are linked. Nevertheless, when I speak of faith issues with my more orthodox christian friends (most of whom are vaccinated, let’s not get carried away in to unhelpful stereotyping here) they often remind me that the bible hasn’t changed, God hasn’t changed, and so, they argue, why should the teachings of the people of God change. This, sadly, tends to be a discussion stopper. 

I wonder if the history of medicine may be able to enlighten us, or at least open space for more meaningful conversation? I admit I am something of a born centrist and I think the ideal scenario is one in which we can learn to agree to disagree while not shaming each other or disrespecting each other (as we do when we end a biblical argument questioning the other person’s obedience to or belief in scripture). Call me naive but it appears to me that mature, well-meaning, intelligent, capable-of-reading-the-bible-Christians can honestly and with integrity come to different conclusions after reading the same words, all while remaining friends.

Here is what I am getting at: just as the human body didn’t change but medicine has evolved over time, the bible hasn’t changed but what we make of it evolves over time as we learn more about what it means to be human living in the shadow of the cross. As we recognize what doesn’t work (which interpretations are harmful or simply too outrageous for most of us to believe—think practices like shunning or stories like Jonah in the fish or 7 day creationism leading to climate change denial); and as we discover practices that help (interpretations which consistently appear to help people flourish, grow closer to God, make better sense of the grand arc of the bible, and find community) we slowly shift and change what we make of the bible and as people living from a posture of faith in the God revealed in scripture. The body is the same today and yet our responsibility both to it and to those suffering around us is to learn and adapt as we go. Why should something as important as faith, the meaning of life, and our purpose on the planet, be treated with less nuance and respect or given less time to develop?

Even if we agree to try to look at it this way, there will still be conflicts, like traditional versus modern medicine, or the more subtle arguments as to the exact best treatment of a given patient, but perhaps this is a helpful analogy for us to bear in mind as we seek to get along with each other while honestly living with, understanding, and submitting ourselves to God and the bible in our lives today.  

At the very least, perhaps this analogy helps us to look fondly on our own walks of faith the things we used to believe and believe no more, the joy we have in discovering new insights and hearing a word from God. I know very few honest people who can say that the faith they learned in Sunday school (good and important as Sunday school is) has been sufficient for the life of an adult. This too might help us to get along better in our changing churches and world. 

One thought on “The history of medicine as analogy for theology?

  1. I couldn’t help but thinking as I read what you wrote that Jesus himself was an agent of change – both in his ministry and in his death. I think the bible is fixed to the accepted beliefs and practices of when it was written but the truths or morals at the heart of the scripture are as relevant today as they were then, but in our context of today.




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